My paycheck and the health insurance it includes is my biggest contribution to my family.
Don’t marry another academic, people told us. The market is brutal on couples.
But in our mid-20s, Jason and I were thinking in romantic, not pragmatic terms. We met in our graduate creative writing program, the faculty of which included two professors who were successful writers, tenured academics, and happily married to each other. Their model became our dream.
Wall Street crashed and took many university endowments with it. The humanities fell even deeper into crisis. But Jason and I got engaged anyway, and we scattered our near-identical curriculum vitas to colleges around the country. We made a deal: It didn’t matter where, and it didn’t matter who. We would go wherever one of us got a job.
Sometimes we applied for the same positions. Technically, this made us competitors, but we felt like teammates. We shared offices as adjuncts, and traded the heaviest teaching loads so we could each write. A photo of Jason sat on my desk, and a photo of me sat on his. Students were confused, then charmed.
After seven years and four states together, we had a baby, a daughter named Benna. When Benna was two months old, I was offered a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college in Boston. To offset the considerable childcare costs in our new city, Jason scaled back his teaching to part-time, and otherwise became a stay-at-home dad.
This week, the Washington Post reported on a forthcoming study in the Journal of Marriage and Family that could change the way we think about working parents. The study examines the multifaceted effects of time spent with parents—particularly mothers—on children between 3 and 11 years old.
The results of the study are surprising, given the popularity of attachment theory in today’s parenting culture: It turns out that what matters most is quality, not quantity of time. In fact, today’s working mothers are spending more time with their children than yesteryear’s stay-at-home mothers. Nostalgia has remade our grandmothers into something they never were.
The study offers freedom from the guilt heaped on working mothers like me, who watch the clock and take the early train home, but Petula Dvorak notes another reason to celebrate the study: “The second point so often forgotten in our never-ending mommy wars: Yay Dad! Many men have really stepped up in the lives of their children, which ought to be relieving pressure on women.”
My own household capitalizes on this greater involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, but it has taken some adjustment and mental rewiring of roles two progressives were surprised to find themselves circumscribed by. In the beginning, our arrangement was traditional. When Benna was a newborn, it was Jason going to work every day, while I stayed home on maternity leave and breastfed our daughter every 45 minutes. We joke about it now: Jason was the bread, and I was the milk.
Publicly, I eschewed the notion of a parenting philosophy, but privately, I was strict with myself as a mother. My father had died suddenly the previous year, and I entered parenthood in mourning, terrified of another loss. Attachment parenting appealed to me because of the physical closeness it promotes between mothers and babies. Keeping Benna close helped to assuage my fears, but it also created a demanding and isolating role for me.
Breastfeeding was a wonderful, transformative experience, and it was also exhausting. For eight to 10 hours a day, I was tethered to the couch, nursing and perusing Kellymom to learn how to increase my low milk supply. I read articles from the American Academy of Pediatrics cautioning against screen time before age 2, and turned off the TV that had been keeping me sane through Benna’s cluster feedings. I wore her in a Baby K’tan wrap that didn’t fit quite right and pulled at the shoulder muscles I’d injured during labor.
What’s more, I withheld Benna from Jason. He spent her first few months on the periphery of her life, and of course, this meant that she rarely went willingly into his arms.
Jason and Benna accompanied me to my campus interviews, and for those multi-day visits, Jason took over Benna’s primary care while I gave job talks and teaching demonstrations. One afternoon, I returned to the hotel to find him covered in the pumped breast milk Benna had refused to take in a bottle. Hungry and confused, she’d cried herself into exhaustion on his shoulder.
As any lactation consultant will tell you, breastfeeding is about more than nutrition. Milk is comfort. At 14 months old, Benna still nurses twice a day, in the morning and before bed at night. But during the intervening hours, Jason feeds her. Because I was never able to pump enough breast milk, Jason introduced formula, then solid foods and cow’s milk. He also had to learn how to get her to nap without nursing her to sleep. He figured out how to comfortably wear her in the Ergo carrier to run errands around town, or take her to the children’s museum.
For the first few months at my new job, I would rush home to relieve him, but as we both acclimate—him, to domestic management, me, to my new department and students—I’ve started to work longer hours. This isn’t because I want to be away from my daughter; on the contrary, I miss her terribly. But my paycheck and the health insurance it includes is my biggest contribution to my family.
My job is more than that, though, and Jason understands that. We met in an MFA program full of ambitious writers. We fell in love not only with each other, but with each other’s words, and inside the shared experience of teaching. Our partnership has always been as much professional as it is personal.
I’d like to think the findings of this new study free Jason to pursue his ambitions, as well. Our liberal friends applaud our non-traditional gender roles, and it is certainly wonderful to raise a daughter in a house where men cook and women work, but when we aim for an egalitarian ideal, everyone’s happiness matters. Jason’s writing matters. His teaching matters. His social outlets matter. Recently, he joined an online group for new fathers, and while I’m thrilled that he’s connecting with other men who are primary caregivers, I also want him to meet and talk with the academic and literary types that populate our highly-educated city.
Parents of toddlers often find themselves eating their children’s scraps—played-with macaroni and cheese, mushy Cheerios, broken Goldfish crackers. Parents so often go hungry for what they need.
This new research may finally grant some permission to step away for ourselves. And it may help us celebrate fatherhood in all its emerging complexity. Last night, I came home from a long teaching day just in time to eat dinner with Jason and Benna, and then play for an hour before Benna went to bed. We always end the day with books, and I look forward to reading to her. She snuggles so well when we read.
But last night, I watched as Jason took a turn with a board book, and Benna climbed into his lap. She quietly sipped her milk and laid her head on her dad’s chest. I felt that momentary balance we’re all searching for. That place where we’re all where we need to be.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.